How a San Antonio Author is Using Fiction to Shed Light on Mexican American History – San Antonio Magazine

San Antonio author Rudy Ruiz knows there’s no rewriting history.

But in his latest novel, Valley of Shadows, he blends history, his own experience growing up near the border and plenty of fiction to look at what it might be like if certain events had turned out differently.

It wasn’t until Ruiz was studying literature and creative writing at Harvard that he remembers being exposed to books by Latin American authors. There is more representation on bookshelves today, Ruiz says, but plenty of work remains. “This book has a Latino hero and a Native American heroine,” he says. “People can see themselves reflected in that, but I also think it’s important for people not of those backgrounds to embrace those characters as heroes.”

Valley of Shadows is officially out Tuesday, Sept. 20, and Ruiz will celebrate with a 5:30 p.m. book launch at The Twig Book Shop. He chats with us here about the novel, which is available in both English and Spanish.

How much research do you have to do for a book like this? Is it tough to weave history, family history and fiction together?

There’s just a lot of events in history that I didn’t learn much about in history class or hear much about growing up. One day my family and I were at the (Bullock) Texas State History Museum in Austin and saw a small exhibit about this event that happened in 1918, the Porvenir Massacre. I hadn’t really heard about it before.

It was basically this tragic event that happened in a small West Texas border town. Some young Mexican boys were accused of stealing cattle and before you knew it this whole town became like a powder keg and the Texas Rangers and U.S. Cavalry came in and before everything was said and done, 15 Mexican American boys and men were executed without any kind of trial or evidence. What happened after that, as you can imagine, is the rest of the Mexican American townspeople were so scared that a lot of them fled and went south of the border.

This was an event that got kind of forgotten about and swept under the rug of history. It took 100 years for a historical monument to be built to the people who died in that tragedy. I thought it would be very interesting to tell a story set in those times, including situations kind of like that, where through fiction I could explore an alternate reality or possibility of how things could have been.

So, in this book, there’s a Mexican American former lawman who is thrust into the situation of helping this town in West Texas solve this mystery and series of killings and kidnappings. In the process, he and his friends and comrades are able to stop a variety of atrocities. It’s almost a reimagining of what history could have been like.

Is Valley of Shadows a prequel to your debut novel, The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramierz?

It is a prequal, but it’s very much a standalone story. It’s set further back in time, so it’s kind of a historical fiction novel. It’s many things—it’s a Western horror story and it’s also in the magical realism style that I like to write in. It’s set back in the 1880s, mostly in West Texas, and so it kind of goes back and forth through time.

The way you write about the border in your books, it almost becomes one of the characters. Can you talk about that and your relationship with the border?

I live in San Antonio, but I grew up down on the border. My dad and grandfather were cattle ranchers, so I grew up riding horses and watching Westerns and Mexican Westerns with charro-type characters like the hero in this book. A lot of those experiences as a child and growing up kind of helped me visualize and sort of create these characters and their world—even down to the names. Cisneros is the last name of a character and it’s my grandmother’s maiden name. Some of the land and some of the old ranches and even people described in the book were real and then I kind of build fiction all around it.

A lot of the issues that our society grapples with today on the border are issues that were being grappled with over 100 years ago. Through fiction, people can make connections and become more empathetic.

This book is very much about a place and a time and how people can very much belong to a place, but the place also belongs to them.

How so?

In this story, set in a mythical town, it’s basically a town that was on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande but then the river shifts course, and it ends up on the American side of the border. Our hero is a bit displaced because they take away his badge and he’s kind of retired and in hiding. He lost his country and his wife and his badge. And then this series of tragic events happens, and he’s sort of reluctantly lured out of retirement because they need someone to solve these crimes. But the border and the river itself feel like characters in how they effect everyone and everything around them.

Why was it important for this book to come out during Hispanic Heritage Month?

It’s a very culturally rich story. There’s a lot of history in it. In some parts of the story, the hero is in his younger days when he was a military officer in Mexico during the war between Mexico and France, which is something people don’t know too much about. Those historical aspects tie into Hispanic heritage and just the importance of Mexican Americans.

You’ve talked about the importance of diversity in book characters and story types. Has that improved since you were a child?

I always loved reading and I loved writing but growing up in the `70s and `80s, the school reading list were authors from England or the U.S., but not people of color. That was something that I didn’t really experience until I was in college and started reading literature written by Latino and African American and Asian American authors. That really opened my eyes to just how important it is as a writer to share one’s culture and one’s stories and these diverse perspectives. In our country I think it helps build empathy and understanding of people of different backgrounds.

I think definitely we’re making progress. There’s more diversity in the books that are being published now, but at the same time we’re still underrepresented. There’s still room for a lot of growth and for more Latino authors to be published. And this all feeds into the entertainment industry because a lot of TV shows and movies are based on novels, so when you don’t have as many diverse novels, you don’t have as many movies or shows with those perspectives. It’s a slow process of change and progress and it just takes time, but it is happening.

Rudy Ruiz Book Launch

Tuesday, Sept. 20, 5:30-7 p.m.

The Twig Book Shop

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